In-house is often seen as nirvana, the state of perfect happiness, peace, and no billable time. At Momentum Search Partners, we often from law firm associates seeking this path begin monitoring opportunities as a 3rd & 4th year (sometime earlier!). It’s never too early to begin getting familiar with the needed skill set and other qualifications to make you more appealing to a General Counsel. Once you take this leap, there is typically no going back to law firm life. So, give serious consideration to whether it’s the right time leave your law firm career behind.
Overall, companies’ value relevant Biglaw firm training above added years of in-house training. Companies often look at their outside counsel for an up-and-coming associate that knows their business and may be a perfect hire and a known quantity. Many in-house opportunities require prior in-house experience and value a mix of firm and in-house experience. You don’t want to pass up a good in-house opportunity just because it isn’t the perfect opportunity. It may be the next step in your career and not the final one.
Working as In-House Counsel
Often law firm associates believe working for a company will immediately create a better work-life-balance. In fact, in a corporation you may work just as intensely, only differently. As a starting point, you are supporting, in essence, a single client, although you may work with a number of “client” divisions and functions within a corporation.
Variety and novelty derive from the broad array of legal problems and projects that you may confront — depending on the size of the corporation and its in-house legal team. In-house lawyers often gain success by broadening their practice. For example, an employment litigator may be asked to handle commercial cases; an M&A attorney may be asked to take on customer deals; and a patent lawyer may be assigned other IP work.
Also, corporations have their own pressures to grow revenue and improve profitability despite greater burdens from regulation, compliance, technology shifts, new competition, and other external forces. Biglaw associates accustomed to having a secretary, paralegal and other support staff will often find companies being much leaner in that department.
Keep in mind, it has historically been very difficult to move back to a firm after going in-house. In part, this is because you’re likely too senior for most law firm positions. It will also depend on how closely aligned your in-house experience is with the work you did/will do at the firm.
What You Should Know Before Moving to an In-house Position
Corporations have many different organizational structures for the business and law department. Before you join, ask how the company is structured and where the law organization fits in that structure, as well as how your own position fits into the law organization. For example, a company may be a conglomerate with very separate subsidiaries grouped under a holding company.
Or it may be organized geographically or according to lines of business that are separate to differing degrees. Does the job report to the General Counsel or a business leader? Lawyers may have “dotted line “reporting to a business leader a “solid line” to the general counsel.
These relationships may be relevant to such matters as: who reviews your performance, who decides key legal issues needing senior level approval, how cross-functional projects are led and managed, and your opportunities to move among different parts of the law organization to broaden your experience and potential for advancement.
Best Time to Consider Working in an In-house Legal Team
There is no single “best time” to make this move. However, it is helpful to have at least 3- 5 years of law firm experience. As associates approach their 5th year, they usually have solid drafting and negotiation skills that will be an added value to an in-house role. The trick is to make sure you have obtained enough substantive legal training at the law firm to be effective as an in-house lawyer.
If you wait too long to move in-house, it is hard for a company to match your salary. An associate therefore needs to evaluate his or her own comfort level with such a move, understanding that people come to this point at different stages in their careers.
In-house vs Lateral Moves
As you begin exploring in-house jobs, keep in mind that it can take longer to move in-house than when lateraling from one law firm to another. Ideally you should start exploring opportunities while you are still relatively happy/comfortable. Start interviewing early so that you get exposure to the market and can hone your interview skills. If you are on the fence – take the interview; you don’t need to take the job!
A few questions to ask yourself or your legal recruiter before making a move:
- Am I sure I don’t want a law firm career anymore?
- Does the role sound interesting/sophisticated in a substantive sense?
- Is this job going to teach me new skills? Will it help advance my professional development?
- Is this a steppingstone and am I pigeonholing myself into a field of law I’m not committed to just to get in-house?
- Is there an opportunity to advance within the organization?
- What background do the general counsel and other senior counsel in the legal department have? Were they all partners at law firms previously or is there an opportunity to move all the way up within the organization?